May's discouraging unemployment numbers present President Barack Obama with a sobering reminder that an uneven recovery from the recession can be a fragile argument for his re-election, deepening his anxiety over the political and economic threat posed by the European debt crisis.
Anemic job growth and an uptick in joblessness to 8.2 percent also give new resonance to Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney's campaign and puts Obama on the defensive after a winter when the jobs trends were in his favor.
The jobs numbers, issued every four weeks from a spare, windowless room in the heart of the federal bureaucracy, are setting the battle lines for the presidential election. Job growth has now been disappointing for three straight months, accentuating the economic and political challenge ahead for the president.
As this year's dominant economic barometer, they are a baseline from which to gauge Obama's and Romney's political fortunes in an election that rides on the pace of a post-recession recovery.
Romney, responding to the first jobs numbers released since he clinched the GOP presidential nomination, called the figures "devastating news."
Romney said in an interview Friday with CNBC that the Obama's policies and his handling of the economy had "been dealt a harsh indictment."
Shortly after the numbers were released, Obama was in Minnesota to push his proposal to expand job opportunities for veterans and to raise money for his campaign. In the meantime, the world anxiously awaits the impact of the European debt crisis, which could stall the recovery in the U.S.
"What we're looking at is the longer-term trend," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama. The economy is still adding jobs, as it has for more than two years, Earnest said, "but it's readily apparent that we're not adding those jobs at a rapid enough pace."
The unemployment numbers, while imprecise and a typically lagging indicator of economic performance, is nevertheless an undeniable marker of the human cost of a weak economy.
Economists were expecting the report to show that employers added 158,000 jobs and that the unemployment rate would not change from April's 8.1 percent. Instead, May's 69,000 new jobs and downward adjustments for March and April mean the economy averaged just 73,000 jobs a month over the past two months. That's half of what's needed simply to keep up with population growth and is a dramatic drop from the 226,000 jobs created per month in the January-March quarter.
May's 8.2 percent jobless rate, the first increase in 11 months, reflects more people coming back into the job force, a thin silver lining to an otherwise dismal report
No president since the Great Depression has sought re-election with unemployment as high as that, and past incumbents have lost when the unemployment rate was on the rise.
Romney wants this presidential election to be a referendum on Obama's 3 1/2 years in office. Obama wants it to be a choice between two distinct visions for the country.
The economy is central to each candidate's argument — Obama wants it to be a choice between his and Romney's economic visions; Romney wants it to be referendum on Obama's economic policies.
Obama is counting on an unemployment trajectory that has fallen from a high of 10 percent in October 2009 to 8.2 percent last month. The president likes to point to the 3.8 million jobs created since he became president, though 12.5 million remain unemployed. He highlights the resurgence of the auto industry following government bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors.
Friday's report seriously dampens Obama's message. And the May numbers may end up doing more damage to Obama's short-term political standing than they do to the economy long-term.
The United States has experienced periods of jobs slowdown for the past three years, only to bounce back. Last year, from May to August, job growth averaged 80,000 a month and from June through September of 2010, the average was 76,000. But Obama can't afford a prolonged period of feeble growth.
What's more, this downturn comes at a time of elevated worry over the eurozone's debt and economic crises. The issue has consumed Obama's time. It was the central subject at an economic summit with major powers at Camp David last month and took up most of the time in a secure conference call this week among Obama and the leaders of Germany, France and Italy.
Obama is pushing Congress to enact several proposals designed to spur job growth and secure the housing industry. "Congress has a responsibility here," Earnest said.
At the same time, his campaign has mounted a step-by-step assault on Romney's economic record, from his days as a venture capitalist to his tenure as Massachusetts governor from 2003-2007.
The Obama campaign released a new online video Friday that features several of Romney's former Republican political foes, including Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, criticizing Romney's economic record.
The campaign also said it would hold a series of conference calls with reporters to discuss Romney's "failure to fulfill the economic promises he made" when he was running for governor of Massachusetts.
Romney, now freed from his primary contests, has aimed heavily at Obama's economic policies, arguing that they have slowed the recovery, not aided it. The Republican has emphasized his background in private business to argue that he's qualified to lead a nation in economic turmoil.
On Friday, his campaign released a new television ad promising "a better day" and declaring that a Romney presidency would focus from the start on the economy and the deficit, unleash U.S. energy resources, and stand up to China on trade. "President Romney's leadership puts jobs first," the ad states.
Obama could face the highest unemployment rate on Election Day of any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But his aides argue that the trend line is more important than the actual number. Jimmy Carter lost his re-election bid in 1980 to Ronald Reagan as unemployment climbed from 6 percent to 7.5 percent. George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 as unemployment rose from 6.9 percent to 7.6 percent.
But while Reagan faced an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent in October 1984, the rate had been dropping since the spring of 1983. He went on to win re-election.
Obama has few policy moves that would help his own trend line, and the European crisis is out of his control. That makes Obama's effort to frame the election a choice between him and Romney the only viable strategy.
Obama can find some solace in unemployment rates that have dropped sharply in several swing states. But those numbers can be deceiving and an employed voter is not necessarily an Obama voter.
A May Associated Press-GfK poll showed that 52 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Obama's handling of the economy while 46 percent approved.
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